In Volunteers’ Week we would like to share Abdul Rahim’s story. Abdul volunteers each Thursday at our InterAction Drop-in where he says he felt ‘instantly welcomed with open arms.’ Abdul is a qualified pharmacist but as an asylum seeker, he is not allowed to work and earn a living. He would like to see whoever wins the election on July 4 change the law on the right to work in line with a cross-party report published in May.

Tanks on the streets, checkpoints with armed soldiers and the constant sound of shelling and bombing.

This is what I witnessed in Syria after war broke out in 2011.

My home was so dangerous that I haven’t been back since fleeing that same year. As a result, I’m now claiming asylum in the UK and desperate to work so that I can give back to the country that took me in.

But I’m not allowed to do so. That is, unless a cross-party report changes things for people like me.

In May, MPs recommended that asylum seekers should have the right to work after six months of arriving in the UK. This would mean that – as an asylum seeker who’s been in Newcastle for just over six months – I could be granted the right to work.

I would jump at that opportunity. And I know many others in a similar situation who would too.

The Syria I grew up in is completely unrecognisable today.

I have memories of a loving home, with my mother nurturing my three sisters and two brothers, while my father worked as a dentist. Life was stable and very good for us.

After I graduated high school in the late 2000s, I attended university in Pakistan in 2010 to study pharmacy.

Then in March 2011, pro-democracy demonstrations broke out  in Syria – with deadly consequences – and my family’s world changed forever.

I decided to return to my home country for a visit two months later and I immediately saw the devastation. It was unbelievable how much it had turned into a war zone, which was absolutely terrifying.

I couldn’t walk from one street to another without fearing for my life.

So it was July of that same year when my father urged me to leave the country earlier than I had planned to go back to Pakistan because it was too dangerous.

While I was in Pakistan, my family moved to another part of the country in search of safety. About a year later, my father’s dental practice had been destroyed. Things only worsened when I received the news that my brother was killed in 2019.

As for me, I continued my studies in Pakistan and graduated in December 2014. I attempted to get a visa to stay in Pakistan, but I was told that I would have to make the application in my home country and then re-enter.

I knew I couldn’t put myself in that danger so I felt I had no alternative but to flee to southern Turkey in 2015.

I stayed there for several years, where I worked – initially as a pharmacist, then in the humanitarian field to help others coming from Syria. At the start of 2021, I met and fell in love with my wife, marrying the next year.


Then on 6 February last year, a devastating earthquake ravaged both Syria and Turkey. People were injured and even killed, with many missing and houses destroyed – including my own.

So I fled to northern Turkey, where my life – again – had been uprooted. This is when I decided to come to the UK to try to study a master’s degree in business administration, relating to my previous humanitarian work.

In October last year, I packed up everything I owned once more and flew to the UK with my wife.

Shortly after this, I realised I didn’t have enough money for the master’s degree and knew I had to apply for asylum instead. I still can’t go back to my home country, so this felt like the only option left.

In my experience, the asylum system itself has been smooth and uncomplicated.

I was originally placed in a hotel in Newcastle, then in Gateshead. I’m not allowed to work, so I have tried to volunteer my time as much as possible to help the local community.

I’ve volunteered in Jesmond Library, West End Refugee Services (WERS), and then discovered Action Foundation – Action Foundation helps provide case work advice, hot food and drinks, free clothing, and activities like table tennis.

I felt instantly welcomed with open arms.

I am multilingual – Arabic, English, Urdu, and Turkish – so I help translate for other asylum seekers. It feels great to be able to give back within my local community, but I wish I could work so that I could properly support myself financially.

I’m a qualified pharmacist, so I think those skills could be put to good use in the UK. Pharmacists are on the Skilled Worker shortage list and NHS England’s ‘Community Pharmacy Workforce Survey’ in 2022 found that there’s a shortage of pharmacists and support staff in the community and it is only getting worse.

I could help fill that shortfall.

  • Asylum Matters are among the refugee charities campaigning to Lift the Ban and allow asylum seekers the right work. You can read more about it here.
  • Abdul’s story was first published in the Metro newspaper. Thank you to Assistant opinion and first-person editor, James Besanville.